Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Out Of The Studio Into The World

I have two photographs today which mark a momentous moment in the history of photography; when it stepped out of the confines of the studio and into the world. Although most of the very earliest permanent photographs were taken out of doors, the new art-science of photography quickly moved into the studio with likenesses of Victorian citizens frozen rigid by the needs of slow shutters and unresponsive film and plates. If you leaf through a pile of Carte de visites, you are struck by the way the individuality of the recorded faces seem to have been leached out of the image until you are left with little else than matronly woman or bearded man. It is almost as if the context of the photograph has been faded in the same way that the background merges into white space.

The CdV of an unknown woman is by the studio of F Bentley of Halifax. I can't seem to find a listing for the studio or when it was active, but at a guess the photograph will have been taken in the last couple of decades of the nineteenth century. I am not sure what can be said about the woman, other than the fact that it almost looks as though her face has been stuck on top of a different pair of shoulders. Was she happy or sad, rich or poor, moody or flighty - who knows.

My second photograph must have been taken at about the same time. Although there is a slight resemblance to the woman in the first photograph, the only relationship I know of was that their CdV photographs were in the same 50p bargain tray in an antique centre 120 years after they were taken. But we have left the studio behind and entered the real world and we are now bombarded by context and peripheral information. The row of houses with their high stone chimneys suggest that the photograph was taken in West Yorkshire and tell us something about the life of the woman and child.

Even the odd little detail is fascinating. Look carefully and you can see a couple of sheets of corrugated galvanised iron on what seems like a lean-to shed. Intrigued I checked out when corrugated galvanised iron was first introduced and I discovered that it was invented by Henry Palmer, architect and engineer to the London Dock Company, in the 1820s. Which was almost exactly the same moment in history that Nicéphore Niépce was taking that first photograph. 

Now there's synchronicity for you.


  1. Strangely enough, I was looking at a contemporary photo in the Sunday Times and thought that too looked like a face Photoshopped on another photo.

  2. I believe Victorian street photographers often kept a stock of photos which they could dish out if the photo they had taken, failed. People would apparently accept a picture of someone else, often, because they were not used to having their photos taken and didn't know what they were suppoesed to look like. The description is in Mayhew, so it took place in the 1850s. They might have got a bit more worldly wise by the time these pics were taken!
    I am interested beacause the lady outside wasn't wearing a hat, yet she doesn't seem to be in her own garden. I suppose she might have had a big garden....??

  3. The lady in the second photo could well be an older version of the first. In the first picture you can end up wondering what had happened that made her look so glum.

  4. I think the first image is astonishingly good - she looks confident, facing the camera full on, no diffidence - redoubtable. It reminds me a little of photos from the Southern Staes USA - often see these in banjo manuals!

    On related note, the Fox Talbot museum of photography is down the road from my Wiltshire home - you would like it; no doubt you have been to the much larger museum in Bradford.

    1. Yes I have often visited the National Museum of Film and Photography in Bradford, but I have not been to the Fox Talbot Museum. Must try and make my way there sometime : if I do I will call in and buy you a pint.

  5. Thank you for the info. on the advent of that corrugated galvanized stuff. My own place appears to be a paean to it: shed/garage, chicken coop/garden shed, and wood shed. All are made of it or roofed with it. I see so much of it in ultra-contemporary architecture now, I'm wondering if I'm old school or cutting edge. :)

    It seems it was a rather dour age, when smiling was verboten.

    It's pretty cool, that these people are being remembered through your purchasing and taking another look at their photos.

  6. I agree Alan, there's something very odd about that first picture. The head doesn't match the body and the mouth is so downcast. I wonder if it's a 'post mortem' cdv.

  7. You have a lot of fun with these photos. Many other people would just pass over them. You make people wonder about things and that is great.

  8. I like the first photo very much and I can easily imagine her with a big smile and a twinkle in her eye. The photo just didn't capture her at that particular moment.

    I had to smile at your search for corrugated galvanised iron. I am all too familiar with the wild internet searches inspired by the little clues on postcards and photographs.

  9. Early photography was taken very seriously..and only the wealthy could afford it. I enjoyed both photos and wonder were they happy and was theirs an easy life or was it a struggle:)

  10. Always interesting to see these old photos which can be found at antique stores and to read more of the story behind them.

  11. I like your phrase about the individuality seeming leached out of the photo. We in our High Definition world of mega pixels can never really experience the amazement of those first photos. Our imagination is a poor substitute for the thrill of that first virtual reality.

  12. Alan, this is fascinating. My father had so many old photos, many of which my brother and I have. One of us has a framed hand-tinted photo of a boy, about 3 years old. It was taken in his casket but hand colored & fixed so he looked to be alive. My father always said the eyes of his sibling were painted in as his eyes.

    The faces devoid of expression at best, grim at worst, were probably a product of having to sit through long exposures while riveted in place by iron skull and back holders. It must have been uncomfortable indeed.


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